Refurbished hall, piano on-and-on

Merkin Concert Hall nipped and tucked, 14 pianists astride keyboard genres drew an overflow audience from 2 pm to 9 on Martin Luther King Day — free of charge, and this jewel-box holds only 450, but the acoustics are swell, and so was some of the music.

Of course, an open Steinway grand ought to sound fine, when played by a dozen-plus sensitive musicians (one at a time) on a broad, clean stage in a nicely raked room with freshly upholstered seating, a new coat of paint and enough flat wood baffles on walls and ceilings to suggest Birnam Wood removed to Dunsinane.
That’s not to criticize: Manhattan can well stand an intimate yet unpretentious concert place like Merkin (at Kaufman Center, on 67th St. off B’way, just one block from the Lincoln Center complex and LaGuardia — “Fame” — High School). The real test of the acoustics will be when drums, horns, and electric amplification come into action. But it’s already been made: the year-long renovation did little of note inside the hall, instead focusing on an expanded entry-reception area, better bathrooms, and double doors to keep extraneous noise from the concert area.
Enough about the setting — how about the sets? Well, concert division director Gregory D. Evans convened New York players of considerable stature and impressive variety. Ursula Oppens with a world premiere of William Bolcomb’s “Ballade” was the cocncert ender, only one hour late of its scheduled time. . . and though a serious piece performed by a keyboard heroine, my ears were tired after 7 hours of notes-notes-notes and I wasn’t as impressed as I was by Lisa Moore’s range of expressivity on both “The Dream of the Lost Traveller” (composed by her husband Martin Bresnick, based on a poem by Blake) and “Piano Piece No. 4” by Frederic Rzewski (protesting the Pinochet regime, with thunder and hope). Moore is pianist for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, but alone truly distinguished herself.
Orli Shaham demonstrated why Chopin’s works are essential piano literature – Jimmy Roberts (composer of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” was a crowd-pleaser with deadpan conflations of “Moonlight Sonata” and “My Funny Valentine,” Vivaldi’s “The Seasons” and “I Get By With A Little Help from My Friends” and an Elgar variations with “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Michael Riesman reduced Philip Glass’s soundtrack for the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula from cues for string quartet to just enough. Theater composer Stephen Flaherty’s pieces seemed quite kitschy an under-developed to me, and I inexplicably dozed off while Igal Kesselman pounded through Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2. Taking a supper break, I missed Lee Musiker and a John Adams work for two pianos.
Which leaves the “jazz.” Firstly: no one swung — not usually a problem for those seeking jazz beyond jazz, but still surprising, given the pianistic context. No one even tried to swing. It didn’t use to mean a thing if it didn’t have that swing. It’s swing becoming extinct?
Secondly: I won’t say much here, because I was on assignment for Down Beat and am reserving detailed reviews for that gig. But Jonathan Batiste is an up ‘n’ comer to listen for: he got the biggest sound out of the instrument, and worked his charisma as well as funky vamps. Vijay Iyer is dependably unpredictable, and played the direst version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” imaginable. John Medeski deserves attention for his music way beyond the vamps made famous by jammin’ Medeski, Martin & Wood. Anat Fort served virtually as light relief, penultimate in the program, between Shaham’s Chopin and Oppens’ Bolcomb.
In the upstairs outside the balcony, Gyorgy LIgeti’s “Symphonique for 100 Metronomes” clattered in and out of sync during intermissions. The triumph of the piano marathon was how seriously the musicians took their responsibilities, giving full accounts of their repertoires to return Merkin to the concert circuit. It’s always been a place worth checking out for musical offerings a bit different from what’s offered at more prestigious Carnegie/Zankel and Lincoln Center halls. Its bookings depend on its concert director, though, and occasional rentals. What’s constant is that solo piano — I bet any solo instrument — and most chamber-sized ensembles with natural acoustic balance are clearly heard there. The sight lines are good, too. The chairs, though, might cramp one after six or seven hours. Let’s see, what can we do about that?

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